Taking town centres beyond retail

Malcolm Fraser is an architect and founder of Malcolm Fraser Architects. He was chosen to chair the Scottish Government’s National Review of Town Centres, which is due to publish its results in spring 2013. He spoke to Clare Goff about the review’s findings so far and why he’s the antithesis of Mary Portas.

Why were you chosen to lead the Scottish town centre review?
I, like many architects, spend much of my life complaining about how government gets things wrong and puts barriers in the way of good development. So when a senior cabinet minister asks you to help do something about it, it’s hard to say no. I’ve been critical of certain government initiatives so I have not been chosen as a yes-man! I can be quite spiky and I think the Scottish Government wanted to see that spikiness used on their behalf. And I think we’re on the cusp of change. We’ve had 60 or 70 years of believing that driving yourself around in a metal box from suburb to business park to out of town shopping centre represented the brave new future for our built environment. But it disconnects you from the world. And then we spend our holidays going to places where we feel the community and the richness and where we are able to walk to the park or the beach. Why can’t we live like that all year round? I cycle the ten-minute journey to work and it invigorates me but it also means that I meet friends on the way or someone with some news of interest to my business. The creativity that you get in a city or town is not something you can get in a business park and it feeds into business success.

Are you a Scottish Mary Portas?
Absolutely not! Her approach was very retail-focused and, to me, a bit too aware of its own celebrity shininess. We might include some mentoring-type initiatives but apart from that we’re looking at a different approach. Retail is not the single solution for town centres. My interest is in the whole ‘offer’ in town centres – the people living there, offices, the parks, the libraries, culture, cinema and shops. To get these things working well is in the interest of retailers too, and if more of us are shopping virtually we need other things to take up the slack. Out of town centres don’t provide the richness and diversity of towns. The Portas Review has followed-on with some additional work on business rates etc but we don’t want to retrofit things to our review, we want to be far more ambitious and include all those things from the start. We also want to avoid a top-down attitude, parachuting into communities and telling them what to do. We don’t want competitions for small amounts of funding for makeovers. We’re about altering legislation – making small changes to the ways rates are charged for example – small things that will allow towns to do it themselves. I’m interested in bottom-up change.

You’ve described town centres as the true eco-towns. What do you mean by that?
We’ve all heard the marketing line, usually attached to spin some car-dependant development built on farmland, but with some wee windmills attached to the houses. But when building these supposed eco-towns you leave the existing nearby town to rot, where the buses, the sewers, the schools and services are all already in place. That town is our true eco-town.

Can you talk through some of the main areas of change in the review?
Well it’s early days, but these are some of the areas we’d like to see brought forward. Firstly, housing. I’m interested in increasing the numbers of people living in towns, and in particular in unoccupied flats above shops. Residential leaseholds in Scotland at the moment are set at a maximum of 20 years but we want to get that raised so that there’s more financial incentive. We’re also approaching housing associations to discuss whether they might take the redevelopment and management of units on. The housing associations could use the flats to bring young people to live in the town centre, people who currently can’t access a mortgage and would love to be at the heart of their communities.
Second is community assets. We want to bring estate agents with vacant properties together with community groups to find new ways to fill them. Estate agents are interested in any use of property and with a microfinance fund in place to assist the community groups – from the Church of Scotland, the Grameen bank or even Tesco – we can get, say, the local creche working with a local community business and the local bridge or dance club to all move in together into, say, an empty hall. And would the government consider such a microfinance fund, that will grow as a new community business is successful? Banks won’t act like proper, traditional lending institutions these days so what are community businesses to do?
Thirdly we want to streamline planning to make it easier for developers and retailers to move into the centre of towns. We need to understand how cities and towns evolve. I like Patrick Geddes’ view of towns as ecosystems, which is very different to conventional idea of build and then conserve. His view is more subtle and creative and allows shopfronts to be knocked about, sites to be redeveloped in different ways. We need to accept these things and do them joyfully.
The fourth area is the very important area of rates and retail and I urge the Scottish Government not to put off its rates review, as Westminster has done. Everyone knows that a review of the rates landscape is needed and a rebalancing, to reflect the reality that many town centres are struggling, would greatly assist their recovery.
A fifth area is around accessibility to public services. We’d like to see the planned community empowerment bill encouraging local authorities to consider how people get to and use public services. If you move services out of town you put a burden on the person trying to use those services who then has to access a car to reach them. We’d like to talk about how to make the best use of public buildings so that old town halls can be done up and improved and used, rather than services moved out of town.
A sixth area is about digital towns, how broadband can link within and across towns.

What’s the next step in the review process?
We’re meeting on the 27th November with the External Advisory Group [the panel of experts leading the National Review of Town Centres] to agree who is taking forward each strand and who can deliver what. We are very keen on delivery. We have so many town centre conferences and excellent reports, where people set out visions without completely understanding how they will be delivered. We need to think about where these items will fit into existing legislative change. Can any of them be written into the community empowerment act or the proposed planning changes or the rates review? It’s about practical, empowering, bottom-up deliverable things. In spring 2013 the details of the review will be announced. But I want to start talking about the plans now to get some momentum behind them.

Do you see differences in the approaches to town centres between England and Scotland?
The Scottish Government is clearly interested in doing things differently and better if there’s the opportunity. Recently I heard an English planning minister saying he’s proud to be a member of the Tesco party. I don’t think a Scottish minister would say such a thing. There’s a better context for understanding that the world needs supermarkets but we don’t need to make things work for their benefit only. Even Tesco benefits from having an independent cafe and retailers next door. Boots and Marks and Spencer’s are talking to us and they understand that diversity in town centres is important for their business.

What are the positive stories about town centres coming out of Scotland?
There are great things going on in Scotland. There are community groups coming together to save Govanhill Baths or create Craft Town Scotland in West Kilbride. And the Scottish Government’s town centre regeneration fund has seen an enormous social and cultural return on that investment. It has focused on conserving buildings within town centres. In Kilmarnock for example there are three significant buildings that would have gone without the fund. But now we need to focus on sustainable development and enterprise. Too many areas are suffering and need more help.


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